Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson go on a camping trip, set up their tent, and fall asleep. Some hours later, Holmes wakes his faithful friend.

“Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”

Watson replies, “I see millions of stars.”

“What does that tell you?” Holmes asked. Watson ponders for a minute.

“Astronomically speaking, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, it tells me that Saturn is in Leo. Time wise, it appears to be approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, it’s evident the Lord is all-powerful and we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, it seems we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you?”

Holmes is silent for a moment, then speaks. “Watson, you idiot, someone has stolen our tent.”

Someone has just stolen our tent, too. The night sky which we thought we knew has a surprise for us, hiding in plain sight.

Comet Holmes–one of the innumerable, impossible-to-see features of the night sky which get hard-core astro-hobbyists all excited but which are ignored by the non-telescope owning pubic–has gone super-nova, so to speak.

No one knows why but Holmes, as it was spinning around the Sun in late October, went from, so dim that you couldn’t see it, even with the best telescopes for kids to “Hey Dad, what’s that fuzzy ball in the sky?” as you drive down the road–an increase in brightness by a factor of a million. And it happened over the space of a few hours.

Astronomers are very excited. You should be, too!

Finding the comet is easy. You don’t need any special tools but if you have a pair of binoculars that would be a big plus.

First, go outside and face north. I shot these photos at 7:30 pm and as the night progresses the comet will spin with the sky right to left in a large arc.

Now, while facing north, look a little to your right, about halfway up the sky. You’ll see a very prominent arrangement of stars that looks like a tilted “W.” That’s the constellation Cassiopeia. Now, move rightwards and down (more right and less down as the night goes on) and you’ll see a line of three stars in a straight line with the middle one brighter than the others.

See that fuzzy ball next to the middle, bright star? That’s comet Holmes. If you have binoculars (and if you don’t you really should get a pair–you live on the coast!) the time to use them is now.

Here’s a cheat sheet:

And here is a photo of Holmes a bit closer up.

Finally, here’s a day-by-day log of observations of the comet at Sky and Telescope’s web site.

Let’s hope for clear skies!

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Photographs by Darin Boville

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